Tuesday, February 12, 2019

From a work in progress...Birth of the First Child

Michael Sedano

The left arm is back after two months pinned to my side. A "separated shoulder" stopped me cold just as I neared the end of a big project I began back in July. It was incredibly frustrating.

Today, as I'm getting back to speed, I'll share what I was doing until I fell head over heels and tasted cement.

Over the summer of 2018 I had the pleasure of meeting regularly with Esteban Torres with the goal of writing an As-Told-To YA autobiography. My goal was to finish it in January. Last month.

When I went looking for autobiographies for raza boys I found Cesar Chavez and a raft of athletes. Torres and I weren't looking to portray heroism or great moments like striking out the side in the ninth inning of some baseball game. That's not what I want to write. And Torres' story demands telling (such as when he got Chavez together with the Mexican worker federations).

Autobiography, literature generally, creates a rhetorical process--Identification. Learn by reading, or "Literature as equipment for living," Kenneth Burke wrote, saying that literature should "size up a situation" for a reader so everyday life comes easier, and all those  situations and decisions add up to big things on purpose.

Esteban Torres' career makes it difficult to avoid being awestruck at "the first" or "the only" status. The vato graduated from Garfield, goes straight into the Army and finds himself patrolling the Iron Curtain. He comes home, falls in love, joins the UFW in the middle of the Red Scare.

The Chicano gets elected Shop Steward at the Chrysler Plant in Maywood. Next, Walter Reuther sends Torres to organize South America when Detroit starts building cars there. Torres organizes South America.

Then Torres goes public sector. Esteban Torres becomes the United States Ambassador to UNESCO and moves his familia to Paris. Jimmy Carter brings Torres back from Europe to work in the White House. 

Out of a job with Reagan's win, Torres comes home. He closes down the toxic BKK landfill in Covina and rides that to Congress. Backtrack to the movimiento years; Torres and the Union start LULAC. Torres fails to incorporate the City of East Los Angeles. By the way, the police riot during the Chicano Moratorium interrupted a permitted event. Torres is the one who paid the fees and signed for the permit.

A Chicano does all this, from Garfield High School to walking with Jimmy Carter in the Rose Gardeen to sitting down to talk with Nelson Mandela, puro wow. Torres sat as Speaker Pro Tem of the House of Representatives, third in line to replace a vacant executive.

Some young man carbuncular assigned to read an autobiography in tenth grade English needs to know about this life. Not because Esteban Torres had all those salaried titles when no one else did, but because Chicanos and Chicanas from East Los belong in those roles. 

Being the First is an index of delay and systemic shortcoming, not a beneficence bestowed upon a First or Only tipo tipa. This storyteller's endeavor is not to pound a kid over the head with this.  Exposing Torres' magnificent attainments as those of a commoner is the point, for the Firsts and the Onlies of the world. 

Interestingly enough, so many Firsts and Onlies in the world confess to a notion of "imposter syndrome." For any reader, Torres' biography informs an affirming perception of belonging and being qualified for challenges.

And the point of all this for a YA reader, for a boy in his adolescence especially? I ponder, what did I need to read when I was a kid that woulda been my Burkean literature as equipment for living? Torres and I talk our way toward those questions. A great life like the one being lived by Esteban Torres is made up of everyday experiences every boy goes through, will live through, will size up and make choices.

Esteban and I, we converse. I'm an inveterate talker but restrain myself. So is he.

Esteban recounts events and I listen. We focus on beginnings--early "firsts" because everyone has firsts, many of them a kid doesn't notice, doesn't put them together right away. Torres' career has so much adult significance but I focus upon his experiences nearer those of his YA reader. Here, for example, is Esteban Torres' reflection on a man's first pregnancy and birth.

Torres has been attending Art Center on the GI Bill and is heading to Madison Avenue to jump feet-first into the dog-eat-dog advertising game. His fiancée talks sense to him

Instead of a walk-up cold water New York flat, Arcy and I found a rental behind a larger house in East L.A. It was to be the first of many addresses with a half in it, like 1243 ½ Ford Street, until we could buy our first house to raise our family.

When I hear a man say, “My wife is pregnant,” I want to correct the attitude behind the statement. No matter how much help your wife receives from her mother and sisters, a wife cannot go through the pregnancy without the constant involvement of her husband. “We are pregnant” is the only accurate statement.

We read a popular book on babies written by Dr. Spock. Today, as soon as they learn they’re pregnant, couples read a book like The First 12 Months of Life, and because Dr. Spock’s book is still in print, many parents read both. 

All responsible parents-to-be should read-up on what to expect during pregnancy. It’s not just the mother and the baby, there are new demands and expectations in store for the father-to-be. Gathering as much information as a man can, makes him well prepared to be a good father.

All around, people offer advice and consejos and myth and emotion. Reading offers the author’s cool, observer’s voice. That voice of fact can buffer the intensity of a wife’s experience, the husband’s responses. Day by day, a pregnant couple bears it together, but each in their separate ways.

In the morning, I go off to Chrysler for ten hours absence, surrounded by co-workers. Arcy has those ten hours alone, until she has someone to talk to.

But of course, she can only distill her nine hours into a few minutes. Words, nor tears, just don’t do enough to fill the empty hours. I’d come in the door, and no matter the soot covering me from the grimiest day in the pit, Arcy needed me, I needed Arcy, we needed each other’s abrazos.

Thankfully, Dr. Spock prepares a family for some of these trials. You live the parts the book leaves out, and you're on your own. Then things happen and it's like it says in the book. Like ganas. The book tells about how a mother’s body drives the need for ingredients in strange food combinations like ice cream and pickles. Try patas en vinagre and a pink concha. Fortunately, the panaderia is next door to the carniceria, and they’re a short walk from the house.

How will you know when it’s time? The book and our doctor told us in detail, because “when the water breaks” doesn’t mean a lot if you’ve never experienced the onset of labor. My mother and grandmother reassured us, “you’ll know and if you can’t tell, Arcy will.”

I put fifty cents worth of Ethyl in the tank the day before, so I was ready when Arcy told me to warm up the Dodge. I took a deep breath and helped Arcy into the back seat where she could stretch out and get comfortable. Her labor pains had not begun.

I’d planned the route, Arcy and I had driven it. Just like practice. I drove straight out Sixth to Alameda, up to College, turned left. I exhaled with relief when French Hospital came into view. I drove around back to the Maternity entrance. Nurses wheeled Arcy into the hospital and I found a seat with a couple of other guys and that was it for us fathers. Sit around and wait.

I stood outside the newborn nursery at the window separating me from Carmen Torres. Nowadays, the dad can be right there helping with delivery, the mom and baby not surrounded by strangers.

The nurse brought Carmen to the window. My daughter is red-faced and her skin all splotchy. Sleek black hair peeks out from the knit cap. Her little eyebrows are dainty like her mother’s. I am in love in an entirely new sense of that word, love. My body feels like it's swelling up and bursting with something I know even though I've never felt like this before.

Staring into that baby’s shiny black pupils an enormous weight settles on my shoulder and I accept it eagerly. “For the rest of your life, baby girl, I will take care of you,” I say to myself. And thinking it, saying the words to myself, that “enormous weight” evaporates. I understand with perfect clarity in that moment. My responsibilities to this little girl and her mother are no burden.

Being a father offers me the challenge of my lifetime, one every father can take on himself, whatever his means and ability. It’s the challenge I see for myself in this tiny girl’s curling fingers, of providing a home, nurturing her, and making the world a better place.

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